“BOOM!” The explosive, unmistakable POW! of an avalanche bomb reverberates throughout the canyon like a seismic wave.
It’s a Powder Day at Kirkwood Mountain Resort, nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, and the Mountain Safety Team are working avalanche control before opening the backside of the mountain. We are lucky to be staying slope-side at The Mountain Club for a few days. Staying on-mountain is one of the most underrated conveniences of snowboarding. When your hotel is at the base of the chairlift, it makes everything significantly easier. Cold, snowy weather isn’t so bad when you know a hot tub is waiting for you a few hundred yards away.
This current Winter season of 2016-2017 is manifesting itself as one of the wettest and most damaging storm seasons we’ve had in years. After some five years of punishing drought, we are in the throes of a relentless, powerful deluge of a Winter. With that deluge comes feet of snow in the Sierra Nevadas, where The Sacred Silence of Snow can now be found in sweet abundance.
Atop the mountain-top, away from the chromatic groan of the chairlift, lies the true essence of the mountains: Silence.
This isn’t your average type of “Silence”, either. Certainly not the Silence you experience when going to bed at night; not the Silence we experience in a quiet park outside the city. This is a full kind of Silence: thick, rich, and enveloping like a warm blanket, no matter how cold it actually is. It holds you like a baby in its mother’s womb – secure, happy, and exactly where you want to be. Peaceful, calm, and comforting. Sacred. It’s a total perspective-check, too; suddenly those concerns you had down-mountain don’t seem so pressing anymore. I’m not religious, but being here is the closest to any kind of “Church” or “Religion” I’ve experienced.
Snowflakes of varying textures fall with an imperceptible pit-pat on the downy snowpack. From moisture-laden Sierra Cement, heavy with vapor long traveled from the Pacific Ocean, to nearly weightless, buoyant fairies of snowflakes with just enough moisture to crystallize, each type of snowflake carries its own story. We cherish the drier, lighter fluff of colder storms from the Gulf of Alaska, but are more often pommeled with the Pineapple Express of subtropical moisture from the likes of Hawaii. This brings us our namesake “Sierra Cement”, which falls in copious amounts in short amounts of time, piling up feet upon feet like bricks of a wall. This precious precipitation is not only our insurance for our state’s Summertime drinking water needs, but insurance for our desire to play in Mother Nature’s playground.
I am lucky that my parents took me and my two sisters skiing from such a young age. I learned to ski at age 3, between my dad’s protective legs, much the way I see dads with their children today. I started snowboarding at age 12, and never went back to skiing except for a few cross-country excursions here and there. Memories of ski trips, snowstorms, and cool rental cabins fill my childhood. I am so thankful to my parents for taking us to the mountains so often.
Flowing over the snow is one of the highest highs I’ve ever experienced. The float of fresh powder buoying you up, gracefully adding to your momentum, is almost like surfing a wave. Each move is graceful and resistance-free. Speed is totally irrelevant because even if you do fall, it won’t hurt in such cushy powder. So you just let yourself go, weight back to keep your nose up, and savor the sweet stoke of sailing down the mountain. Pair this feeling with absolutely breathtaking views of gorgeous, expansive mountains, and it’s a dreamscape. There is a pure and simple joy in moving over the snow that makes you laugh from your belly, whole heartedly, with total abandon. Happiness is an understatement. It’s like the meaning of life is unfolding before you.
It’s kind of like a piece of bread becoming perfectly buttered toast, ready to eat. If there were a giant bowl of perfectly-smooth room-temperature butter, and a piece of toast is carving its way down, with each turn, the toast gets butterier, tastier, and its edges are smoothed. The process of flowing down the mountain is satisfying and inspiring, each move self-edifying. By the end of the run, that plain piece of bread has metamorphosed into the most perfect piece of toast there ever was. Your appetite is insatiable for that toast, so on you go to the chairlift as soon as you are done with one run. It’s somewhat addictive, but in a healthy way: no artery-clogging saturated fat to worry about.
Juxtaposed with the Sacred Silence of Snow is the chaos you likely went through just to get here. People don’t always talk about what a huge inconvenience it is just getting here; we’re more likely to expound about how “epic” our trip was as opposed to the seven hours of edge-of-your-seat, gut-wrenching traffic it took to get there. It’s the marathon of inconvenience we go through that tests and proves our commitment time after time.
Trying to get to the mountains during a snowstorm? Better make sure the highways are even open. The Carson Spur, just a teasing couple of miles before the entrance to Kirkwood on Highway 88, is notorious for closing at a moment’s notice, fresh snow or not. It’s steep face makes it highly avalanche-prone, and its snowpack builds up like two-story buildings along the highway lanes in heavy Winters such as this one. When it’s closed, Highway 50 to 89 and back to 88 is an alternate route, turning a roughly four-hour trip from our house in Ben Lomond into more like six or seven hours, depending upon traffic and how much it’s snowing. Worse, 50 and I-80 will be closed, leaving no way to get to the mountains at all. It’s these long days that we have to remind ourselves of the pay-off while sitting uncomfortably, and at times claustrophobically, in our cars for hours on end. Conversely, we’ve gotten stuck many times at Kirkwood, holing up in their old Red Cliffs Lodge with blankets and a deck of cards until the highways open again. We always check the highway conditions from Caltrans and Sigalert, but conditions are often so dynamic you never know until you’re there. We always come prepared to spend the night if needed.
Driving in snow can be stressful. Regardless of having a 4WD, it’s hard to see when high winds and high rates of snowfall combine for blizzard conditions. Cars slide out into snowbanks, or worse, each other. 2WD cars may struggle in traffic on steep hills, slipping out when trying to start again from a stop. There’s a saying on Kirkwood’s Facebook page that’s often used, probably most by its ubiquitous purveyor of stoke, Kevin “Coop” Cooper: “Slow Your Roll”. Indeed. Everyone needs to drive slower in the snow, and give plenty of space in front of them in case they end up sliding out on a downhill. I love my 2004 Subaru Forester; it’s handled safely and stably in snowy conditions over 13 Winters of getting to Kirkwood.
No matter the inconvenience it can be getting to the summit, the effort is always outweighed by the reward. The mountains are one of my “happy places”, to say the least. Snow-covered or not, they always provide the solace, inspiration, and beauty I need to stay motivated and happy.
The challenges Mother Nature may throw at you in the mountains usually adds to the value of the experience in some way. I’ve had many difficult, uncomfortable situations in the mountains, but each one taught me something important. Whether it was being stuck in the car on a snowy highway for hours on end, or stuck in a powder field for what felt like hours on end, it’s not always easy to be graceful in the snow. It’s not always Silent, either; more often than not, there are signs of people to be heard (chairflifts, cars, talking), the sound of wind blowing (or howling at hurricane force speed), or the sound of your board scraping down hard, compacted snow fallen weeks ago.
Everyday can’t be a Powder Day. But somewhere in most experiences there are moments of total Silence, total calm. Some last longer than others. Most of the time, you have to put in some work to get there. The further away from the parking lot, the better. In those moments of Sacred Silence in the Snow, is the grace and magic of the mountains. When I am having a stressful moment back in the day-to-day world of work and responsibility at home, I can visualize the unfettered freedom of flying down the mountainside atop feet of Sacred Snow. It reminds me why all we Powder Hounds work at all: to play our hearts out in our off-time.